Once a group of filmmakers has finished the pre-production for a video production, and it’s time to start rolling the cameras, one big decision has typically been made: the decision to either shoot on location or to shoot in studio space. Now, depending on the type of production this can be a no-brainer. However, there are both pros and cons to each option. Both the pros and cons will be similar in nature, whether they be for a low-budget video project or a Hollywood blockbuster. However, the larger the production, the more exasperated each “pro” and “con” can become. Below we will discuss the pros and cons of each of these choices.
For starters let’s discuss the pros of shooting on location. One of the biggest pros to shooting on-location shooting is that you get an authentic environment for your project. Whether that be a simple interview video shoot, a corporate video, or a larger-scale narrative shoot. For example, if you’re conducting an interview with a scientist and you are in a lab you get an even more “authentic” feel for the project by being in a practical environment. The same thing goes for a narrative project. If you’re shooting a scene with a kid in a candy store, and you’re shooting in an actual candy store, you already have the look and feel of a real candy store that you don’t have to recreate on a set.
Another benefit of shooting on location is the cost. Generally, it is more cost-effective to shoot on an actual location, depending on a given project's budget, than it is to re-create a similar environment on a set. Using the same candy store example as mentioned above, the amount of time and money you’d spend to build and dress a candy store on a set, to make it look and feel lived in, will typically be more expensive than simply renting out a candy store.
However, there are some challenges and potentially negative impacts of shooting on location. When you’re shooting on location there are generally many more logistical hurdles that need to be dealt with. From dealing with the general public to make sure they don’t disrupt a set, to ambient sounds that come with being in a real-world location that can affect the recording of the dialogue, to simple logistical things like whether or not there is enough space to set up the proper lighting and camera equipment, or if there is space to park all of the production vehicles and how long are you permitted to be in the actual location just to name a handful. It also requires the extra step of location scouting during the pre-production process, where crew members of the production team will go out to a variety of places to see what real locations can produce the same look as in the imagination of the creative team.
Also, depending on where and when you are shooting you will most certainly have to get a permit for the location. The amount of time it takes to receive the permits varies, and the cost can be in the hundreds to up to thousands of dollars. Also, in the worst-case scenario, you may find out that filming isn’t permitted where you want to shoot. Despite this seeming like a straightforward answer during the location scouting stage, sometimes agreements with a location owner can change at a whim, even if paperwork has been signed. Any additional variables in your workflow create more opportunities for things to go wrong, and this could lead to your team scrambling to find a different location, or book a studio set that is hopefully free at the scheduled time of filming. Finally, security can be an issue when filming on location; not just for the potential safety of your crew and cast, but there is a greater risk that equipment might be stolen depending on how accessible the location is to the general public.
As far as the pros go for shooting on a set, whether it be a sound stage or just a more controlled environment than a rented or run-and-gunned location, there are quite a few. For starters, you are in a space that you essentially have complete control over. From the temperature to any unwanted audio issues that present themselves when you’re on location, to general logistics for both gear and crew. You typically have all of the space you need and can focus your set design to fit around the camera and lighting equipment, whether that be constructing a backdrop or green screen to utilize in post-production for VFX, or installing overheads to get the look the cinematographer is searching for, which is often infeasible during location shooting. When a production shoot occurs in a production studio soundstage, the blank canvas it provides assists to build the creative team’s vision from the ground up.
Generally speaking, most studios have ample parking for both production vehicles and general crew. Also, most stages’ and studios’ rental contracts are by the day and not by the hour. So you pretty much have as long as you want on any given day to use the stage for shooting. Whereas with a location, you typically rent them for a specific amount of time within a given day, as they may have booked that location for another shoot or purpose at another point in the same day.
Another great benefit to shooting in a studio is that it is a very secure environment where you really don’t have to think about crew safety as much as on location, or equipment potentially being stolen. In saying that, crew and cast safety should always be the highest priority, but you don’t have to generally worry about a crew or cast member getting injured by something that is out of the production's control the way you have to take that into consideration if you’re shooting on a public space.
However, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to studio shooting. There are typically additional costs when shooting in a studio. From more general costs of the time and money it will take to construct a set (and to tear said set down once shooting is completed), to the power that you’re going to be consuming while on set that the studio charges you for, and arguably the biggest cost is the risk of having whatever you build on set not looking as good as if you were able to shoot the real thing.
Like everything else in the film industry, it all comes down to the budget. When choosing between shooting on location or shooting on set, you need to decide what works best for your budget, from both a financial position and a time management standpoint. Once you weigh the pros and cons of where you want to shoot, the picture should start to become clearer as to what makes the most sense for your project.
Six step guide to shooting on location:
How location permits work:
Advantages of shooting in a studio: